Set Designers Peter Ksander and Mimi Lien with Gary Winter

Lifting the Curtain is an ongoing series of interviews exploring the roles of the artists who collaborate to transport a play from page to stage. Following up his series of interviews with Costume Designers (Dec/Jan 2012), Sound Designers (October 2011), and Stage Managers (June 2011), Gary Winter delves into the physical space of theater, exploring how a set grows from concept to design with two of the most highly regarded and versatile set designers contributing their visions to theater today.


Gary Winter (Rail): What are you working on now and/or have coming up?

Peter Ksander: Right this minute I’m in tech on a new project with Jim Findlay at 3LD. It’s called Botanica. It’s a huge room-filling installation—lots of plants and plastic. And then there is a remount at La MaMa of a piece called I Killed My Mother and a dance piece with Pavel Zuštiak called Strange Cargo.

Rail: What, in your mind, makes for an effective set? This naturally relates to your own particular philosophy about design.

Ksander: It should set the stage, in that it should circumscribe a space and create a crucible for the performance. A set needs to amplify common space into something else. It needs to take hold of the existing architecture of the room and set up the proper conditions for the eye and the ear. If the artificial architecture of period realism is called for, then it needs to provide for the transition between our time and the time being recreated. It needs to manage the fourth wall separation. If we want to be in the same room with performers it needs to shatter that same wall and extend the event across the threshold and transport the performance’s energy to the audience. The environment should be held in tension by forces pushing to invite and alienate simultaneously.

Rail: Could you talk about how the playwright’s input can help you? What is helpful for you to hear from the playwright/director/actor that may supplement what’s already in the script?

Ksander: For me it varies with the project. There are different levels of scenographic response possible. There is a conventional wisdom sometimes repeated in design schools that insists that one should not read the stage directions or non-spoken parts of the script. Maybe even take a marker to them and black them out. That’s a pretty extreme response

I feel with a new piece that one needs to honor, or at least attempt to honor, the playwright’s intent. Hopefully they will be around and it can be a dialogue about what is intended. There are many times that I find the structure of a play hasn’t considered the practicalities of production, and violations of physical laws are coded into the script. I’m excited when a sense of the world the event exists in is captured in the stage directions. And where specificity is called for it should be there, and where it can be left loose and poetic, it is.

Rail: Here is a blank check to build your dream set. What would you like to do with it?

Ksander: Punch a hole in the architecture. Let the air out and the wind in. Allow the scenographic to seep out through that hole and continue unabated for miles and kilometers. Make visible again the familiar and by doing so, make it strange and exciting.

Rail: Could you talk a little about your influences?

Ksander: I’ve been hugely influenced by the following: The theory of emergent behavior, any and all thinking about space and time and how we have (will) inhabit them. Counterfactuals. Building codes and the standard sizes of building materials. Duchamp and Matta-Clark. Hannah Höch. The rock and roll I listened to in my youth. The experimental theater of New York City in the first decade of the 21st century. The idea of post-dramatic dramatic work. René Descartes and Gertrude Stein.

And really in truth, anything I come into contact with. If the work we are doing is supposed to be time-and space-specific then wherever I find myself specifies my response and what’s interesting.


Rail: What are you working on now and/or have coming up?

Mimi Lien: I just opened Body Awareness, an Annie Baker play, directed by Anne Kauffman at the Wilma Theater in Philly. I’ve also been working on a “magic” show called Elephant Room, directed by Paul Lazar, which is running at Arena Stage now and will be at St. Ann’s Warehouse in March. In a couple of weeks I will head to Kansas City to tech The Great Immensity, a musical about climate change by the Civilians. And after that, back home to New York City to work with my husband, Alec Duffy, on All Hands—a piece about secret societies created by Hoi Polloi that will be at the Incubator Arts Project in March. Right now I’m also really excited to be working on a piece that is a collaboration between Pig Iron and Toshiki Okada, a Japanese playwright/choreographer, using Thoreau’s Walden as a starting point.

Rail: What, in your mind, makes for an effective set? This naturally relates to your own particular philosophy about design.

Lien: I think there are so many different modes of being an effective set, I’m finding it difficult to distill it down—sometimes it needs to run parallel to the words/actions of the play, other times it wants to be perpendicular; sometimes metaphorical, sometimes banal; super-detailed or minimalist; physically easy for performers to deal with, or actually presenting performers with obstacles—the list is truly endless, but I suppose the main thing is that it needs to strongly elicit a “feeling” that is in keeping with the intentions of the play, or the production.

I think an effective set somehow conveys a very clear point of view about the piece, even if its contents are messy and this point of view should prove itself to be congruent with the other elements of the production. I’m personally interested in formal explorations, and I think a set ought to do something beyond recreating an environment that exists in the world, in a theater. Or even if it is a site-specific setting, the “real world” needs to be framed.

On top of this basic prerequisite, I think about how the space moves. This is more logistical, but can often be the crux of the design. There will always be some sort of rhythm inherent to a piece, and an effective set will pick up on this and make a bold choice about how to create a space that allows for this rhythm to exist in movement and time.

Rail: What is helpful for you to hear from the playwright/director/actor that may supplement what’s already in the script?

Lien: I find it helpful for a playwright to tell me banal details about the people who populate the world. I’m pretty sure that playwrights have this rich mine of esoteric information about the characters that doesn’t make it into the script explicitly but somehow can be the key to unlocking the perfect environment for the play. By the same token, the actors—at a later point—are also developing rich inner lives for their characters, which usually helps me to fill in the details.

Also, it’s very helpful to talk about performance style with the director, and what the relationship is between the audience and the performer. This is often the very first question I ask myself when starting to think about a design—how is the audience situated within this performance experience? Is the audience included in the space, or not? Do the actors directly address the audience? The answers to these questions can be a big clue for me to figure out the nature of the space we are creating for the production.

Rail: Here is a blank check to build your dream set. What would you like to do with it?

Lien: The architect Le Corbusier designed a house that he called a “Machine for Living.” I always thought that though it sounded really cool, in reality it probably wasn’t that comfortable to live in. But the great thing about theater is that it isn’t reality, so maybe this application could be perfect! I’d like to build a Machine for Theater—a set that totally transforms the shape and volume of space at different points in the performance, including the space occupied by the audience.

I’m kind of obsessed with the idea of experiential space in theater—I believe that the experience of being affected spatially as an audience member is so potent, and inherently dramatic, that it ought to be harnessed more often.

Two things which I regularly find nearly impossible to do in the theater are the use of real materials, and not throwing things away. There are so many interesting materials out there, and yet we are almost always limited to using paint and wood to make simulacra of other things; I think this is primarily because of budget limitations, which exist because we throw things away after five weeks, and it just doesn’t make sense to spend more money on it.

But I’ve been musing about the idea of being able to use materials that are more interesting and more environmentally conscious, and therefore more expensive, if we just reduce the number of sets that are put in the dumpster. And at the same time, this would pose a new design challenge to designers to make transformative environments rather than stage sets.

Rail: I assume a huge part of the design process is navigating limitations and the input/demands of producers, playwrights, directors, and other designers. Any thoughts on how you work with what potentially seems like a lot of varying input?

Lien: Yes—for me, the definition of design is actually very closely linked to the idea of having limitations. So, I think of the limitations and varying input from multiple sources as kind of a given, and navigating between them all is ultimately useful and necessary. Often, I find that faced with a budget situation and needing to make cuts, the design actually gets better—more distilled, more clear. Or, a weird space that seems limiting ends up being embraced in the end, and makes for a more specific and interesting design that you never would have come up with were it not for that strange column/alcove combination, etc.

I find that I’m constantly inspired by my environment, which includes other people. It’s an uncanny thing, the things that just happen when people are in a room together. So although I do require the time to go off on my own to process and think, it’s always helpful to hear someone else’s take on things, whether I agree or not. And even if I don’t agree, it makes me question my own thinking and make stronger arguments.


Gary Winter

GARY WINTER is a member of (soon to implode) 13P.